“Trying to help with handouts makes the problem worse; there are better ways”

Homelessness is a problem in Albuquerque and throughout New Mexico — as it is in cities and countries across the globe. And the problem isn’t a simple one, nor is the solution. There is truly no one-size-fits-all solution.

People experiencing homelessness fall into a variety of categories:

• Some people are dealing with behavioral health or substance use issues and need access to treatment programs. They need safe space today, and until they can access services.

• Some people struggled with keeping their own apartments or homes because the rate of rental increase surpassed their income levels. Senior citizens often fall into this category. In addition, many have additional expenses with childcare or medical issues that impact their ability to pay rent. They need access to rental units they can afford.

• A very few people have to choose between keeping a social group together or housing. How many of us would give up our “family” if it meant going into shelter? We need to think differently about shelter services to provide a safe place for groups of people, rather than individuals.

• The final group are the precariously housed—people who are one financial incident away from losing their housing. They need support from neighbors, friends and anyone that connects with them.

Of all the people experiencing homelessness, about 95% will become permanently housed with the right wraparound services. That may mean vocational training, mental health services, medical treatment, or assisted living tailored for the needs of that individual or family.

To address a common community concern, I believe people experiencing homelessness need to follow societal law and be held accountable for their actions, just like any other community member.

The biggest issue we deal with across the board is people accessing the help that is there. Many people trying to help sometimes actually add to the problem. This will be counterintuitive to many people—when you give handouts to people on the streets—whether that be cash, food, water, clothing, blankets or tents—you’re not helping. Until living on the street becomes severely uncomfortable, many people won’t seek services. If you want to provide meaningful help, call 311 with the person—so the city can follow up and move the person or family into the service system. The more we try to help with handouts, the worse we are making the problem.

It truly takes a village to turn around the problems. I encourage everyone to do their part. And there are many ways you can do just that:

• Contribute financially to my organization, Heading Home, or any of the dozens of organizations that provide homeless services.

• If you own a business, contribute office space that can be used by one of the homeless service providers, donate older vehicles, equipment, furniture or office supplies—all of these will save organizations money and allow them to use more of the funding for direct services.

• Volunteer your time and expertise to help.

Together, we will make a difference. There isn’t one single shelter in the U.S. that changes homelessness by itself. What will change homelessness forever is shelters coupled with wrap-around services.

We all want to see people succeed. Let’s all do our part.

Heading Home programs have collectively transitioned more than 3,000 individuals into housing since 2011.

Steve Decker
CEO, Heading Home

[Originally published through the Albuquerque Journal, Tuesday, January 10, 2023]